Transcript

Remarks by Secretary Esper En Route to Europe

Feb. 11, 2020
Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE MARK T. ESPER: OK, so obviously you know -- you guys know we're going to Brussels for NATO, and then Munich for the security conference. Objectives in Brussels with NATO are not much different than what they've been in the past. We'll be discussing traditional NATO issues: NATO readiness, burden sharing, those types of issues. We'll also be talking about the status of NATO in Afghanistan and the way forward. We will be talking for the first time about -- I shouldn't say first time. We've talked in the past about NATO in Iraq, but what changes have been proposed with regard to NATO in Iraq. And of course, China. We'll talk about China and technologies. We typically do that at our dinner. So all the same thing. 

I have a full round of bilaterals with many of our partners. I try and hit folks I haven't spoken to in the past, but that will continue. Of course, I'll meet with Secretary General Stoltenberg, as well.

And then it's off to Munich, where I will have a chance to meet with think tanks and industry and more counterparts, defense ministers. I have a chance to meet with the EUCOM commander and -- and then, as you know, I'll speak on Saturday. 

So that's pretty much the agenda for the next four days and it's pretty -- pretty well set, and I look for, you know, again, good meeting in both.

OK?

Q: I’ll start you off with a question about Iraq. You mentioned Iraq. I'm wondering about how that fits into the concept of NATO, Middle East, whether that's the main focus of what the president, Trump, wants, in terms of NATO's role in the Middle East. Is it Iraq, or is it the Gulf, or is it...?

SEC. ESPER: No, the -- you know, NATO, Middle East is about all the countries in the -- in the Gulf, I mean, at least looking at them all beginning with Iraq. We know that what we want to do is increase the NATO activities' presence in Iraq, making sure that we're fully living up to the capacity available to us in NATO Mission Iraq. And then, of course, to the degree that NATO can -- can offset the U.S. presence, that would over time allow us to bring some forces home, which you all should know has been my ambition for some time.

But beyond that, I -- as I've said to you all before, many of you, I also want to see if NATO can help us, help our friends and partners in the Middle East with air defense, as an example. So the Saudis in particular are -- need additional air defense assets to deter Iranian bad behavior. They're not the only country, but that's an example where I'd like to see greater NATO participation, or at least our NATO partners participating.

Last fall after the attacks on the Saudi facilities, I called at least a half dozen of our NATO partners who have NATO air -- compatible air defense systems to assist us with that, and so I want to continue that dialogue, as well.

Q: (inaudible) 

SEC. ESPER: One is leaning into it. I think the French provided radar, but I need effectors. I need intercept -- we need interceptors to help out. So that's an ongoing process. I will likely bring that up again with regard to broad -- beyond -- we're looking at Iraq initially, but then how do we do other things?

And of course, you know, we have NATO partners that are helping us with the Maritime Security Initiative, right? So -- not under the NATO banner, but they're NATO -- they're NATO partner allies, in some cases, I -- I think, if I've got my countries right. So anyways...

Q: So one last thing, and I'll turn it over to my partner here. On Iraq, you mentioned you'd like to have the NATO countries take over a little bit more of the -- of the burden there in -- in Iraq so the U.S. can -- can lessen its presence. Is that something you're going to ask for in this meeting, that they...?

SEC. ESPER: Well, we -- a purpose of this meeting will be to see how NATO partners can contribute more to the NATO Mission Iraq, the NATO -- NMI, NATO Mission Iraq, putting more forces in. As they put more forces in, that -- that could allow us -- the United States, now -- to reduce some of our train, advise and assist presence in Iraq, as well.

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: That's my -- that's my ambition, but the first thing is getting NATO in, and once we get NATO in, or more NATO partners in, we could look at reducing our footprint.

Q: You get more NATO partners in. 

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, or more NATO forces in from the current partners. I mean, there's a couple ways -- different ways to do it.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Mr. Secretary, the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq conditioned on NATO's ability to commit forces to that effort?

SEC. ESPER: Not necessarily, but I mean, clearly, that's a -- that's a clear, easy offset, right? If they put additional forces in, we have the means to -- to reduce the forces. Why? Because I want to implement the NDS, and the NDS means -- means right-sizing our forces in every theater, and I think that we can -- that -- that a NATO increase could allow us to do a decrease, and that way I can free up forces to go -- what I've said before -- go back to the States to increase their readiness or redeploying elsewhere in the -- in the Indo-Pacific. And that -- again, it takes into account that the NDS is about great power competition, and I also recognize that Russia and China are in the Middle East. So it's not completely moving out; it's being able to right-size our forces in all these theaters to do that.

Q: What’s the incentive that you give? I just want to clarify one thing, and then I want to go to the Philippines. What's -- what's the incentive that you offer NATO to commit more to Iraq?

SEC. ESPER: I don't think it's as much offering an incentive as the fact that we all have a shared interest. The shared interest is ensuring the continued defeat of ISIS. By the way, we probably have another -- we talk about defeating ISIS. So we all have that interest in defeating ISIS, ensuring the defeat of ISIS, number one. The way you do it -- do that is through our own forces doing it, right? Counterterrorism, whether it's us or other countries, and doing the train, advise and assist of the Iraqis so the Iraqis could pick up more of that mission, as well. 

Same kind of formula. The more the Iraqis could do -- sorry, the more the Iraqis can do, the less we, either as individual countries or as whatnot have to do, to put on the ground, as well. At the end of the day, that's what we're trying to do. OK. 

Q: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, she's been...

Q: (inaudible) Can you update us on the latest with the – the VFA1? I know Duterte is giving the U.S. one hundred and eighty days’ notice to pull out, and what does that mean for the NDS? Because that's a place where we were fighting in the war against China and the war for -- for international waterways and whatnot.

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, so we just got the notification late last night. We have to digest it. We have to work through the policy angles, the military angles. I'm going to hear from my commanders. But you know, in my view, it's unfortunate that they would make this move. As you all know, as some of you know, I was just there. Some of you were with me. (inaudible) had very good meetings with Philippine -- Philippine defense officials, to include my counterpart who is a -- a very interlocutor on these matters. And I -- I do think it would be a move in the wrong direction as -- as we both bilaterally with the Philippines and collectively with a number of other partners and allies in the region are trying to say to the Chinese, "You must obey the international rules of order. You must obey, you know, abide by international norms." And as we try and, you know, bolster our presence and compete with them in this era of great power competition, I think it's a move in the wrong direction for -- for, again, for the longstanding relationship we've had with the Philippines for their strategic location, the ties between our peoples, our countries. 

But look, we just got the notification last night. We've got to read it. We've got to digest it. One hundred and eighty days. We've got to work through it, and -- and we'll just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time.

Q: Thanks. Can I also follow on -- on the border situation about...

SEC. ESPER: Which border?

Q: The southern border...

SEC. ESPER: OK.

Q: ... with Mexico. So about a month ago, DHS requested ...

SEC. ESPER: Yeah. 

Q: ... about 270 miles of border wall. They said that you would be making the decision, or that you have the specific tools you need to make a decision within a couple weeks or so. What's your decision? Are you gonna provide those funds...

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. ESPER: When we're -- when we're ready to make that decision, we'll make a decision. So we're -- not yet. 

Q: Have you received everything that you need to make your decision? 

SEC. ESPER: We did receive the request from DHS, that's all I'll say right now. We're working our way through the process, we're doing all those things we need to do. So when we're ready to make an announcement, we'll make an announcement. 

Q: Would you like to see an expanded role for NATO in Iraq for example, but a lot of the European countries that you're going to talk to are concerned about U.S. troop presence in Africa, and particularly the Sahel. I mean, what is the policy there? Are you going to look to draw down troops from the Sahel? And what would NATO do? 

SEC. ESPER: Well, again, you guys know I'm looking at every single combatant command. I began with Africa because I had met with -- you know, I had some experience with Africa, having met with them previously. And they had some requests pending, so I went first with them. 

SOUTHCOM is now under way also. Soon, I'll be looking -- I think NORTHCOM is next. So we're going to work our way through all the commands. The purpose is to make sure that what we're doing is aligned with the National Defense Strategy, so I get the force sizing right, that the activities, the actions and tasks right in each theater of command. And -- so I can implement the NDS. 

So I haven't made any decisions yet on West Africa or East Africa or things like that. But over the course of time, we will. I've been consulting with the French now for many months. I will see Minister Parly here in Brussels, I'll probably talk again with her. So no decisions yet, but I've been very clear and consistent, I think, with regard to what we're doing and why we're doing it. 

Q: The French have been particularly vocal about U.S. troop withdrawal, or downsizing of forces in the Sahel. I think Parly said earlier, late last month, that it would hault D-ISIS operations if there wasn't a significant -- a sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops.

SEC. ESPER: Well, again, the French, I give them credit. They've really played a leadership role in West Africa. They've put a lot of troops there and I give them great credit for what they're doing. And we'll just -- again, we'll take it one step at a time in terms of our assessments and my consultations with them will continue. 

Q: Mr. Secretary, do you expect any pushback from some of the NATO allies with regards to the fielding of a low-yield nuclear weapon? Some of the European countries have expressed a little bit of skepticism about it, about whether it lowers the threshold. Do you expect pushback from that? 

And the secretary general today talked about moving forward on the counter-Russian deployment for the INF-violating missile, you know, steps to take to counter Russia's violation of the INF Treaty, that he'll be talking about that in the NATO summit. Can you give us a little picture about that? 

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, so two things. Let me go back a second to West Africa. Because one thing that we're going to probably talk about, that will mention with regard to Africa in general, is the same thing I've said, the French have also said, is, our European partners, there's room for them to step up in Africa. And to do more.

And the French, to their credit, have been asking the Europeans to do more with mixed results. So I think that that is something we'll continue to press the Europeans on. 

Q: Just (inaudible), how concerned are you about the expansion of that into an international conflict? You've got the Turks threatening to put troops in to train; Russia's there now. 

SEC. ESPER: We need to work -- the way forward is through a political agreement. We need to work through the U.N. process, that's my view on this. 

OK. 

Q: Low-yield nuclear weapon, (inaudible) to kind of push back on the Russians' (inaudible)...

SEC. ESPER: They're -- actually, I want to say at the last meeting, there wasn't any discussion on INF. The last time we had this discussion on INF was, I think, the July meeting, which was just prior to the United States withdrawing from the treaty. We had given notification. 

Unanimous agreement among NATO partners, we get out of INF because the Russians were cheating and because everybody recognized that the -- the advantage the Russians were gaining. So I don't recall we had a discussion at the last meeting.

The way forward, going back to July, though, was that we were going to continue to do research, development, et cetera, to include defenses against these weapons. And I think working group -- I think working groups were assigned to work on it. So at some point we'll come back around, I imagine. 

On low yield, as I said at our press conference last week or the week before, the -- the deployment of low-yield weapons is simply to give the commander in chief more options. And the more options you have, it increases your ability to deter conflict, particularly nuclear conflict.

I would be remiss if I didn't say that the Russians have had and have deployed low-yield nuclear weapons for years. So this is nothing new in terms of the strategic arena, but is something we actually think will raise the deterrence threshold. 

Q: But the allies, do you expect some pushback from the allies on this? 

SEC. ESPER: You know, nothing's come up to me in my pre-briefings or in my read-aheads that says this is going to be raised as an issue. We'll see, I'll let you know afterwards if it does. But it -- it, you know, it is what it is. What we're trying to do is actually, as I said, give the commander in chief more options to raise the deterrence level. 

Q: (inaudible), do you see this as a boon for China, to (inaudible) their influence?

SEC. ESPER: Well, let's wait and see where it goes. It's -- I don't think it's necessarily tied to China. As you know, it's tied to some other issues. So again, I'm going to take this one step at a time. I don't get too excited about these things.  
We've got a process we have to work through and we just received it nine hours ago, 10 hours ago. So you know, I'll -- the DoD will work through it, we'll work through it with our Department of State counterparts as well, they have a role in this. And we'll just take it one step at a time. 

Q: Can I ask for a clarification on a question – the response to Ryan's question about where NATO is on post-INF, countering the Russian -- I think that's what you were referring to. 

The secretary general has talked about moving forward or making some decisions about how NATO would -- would respond. Is that what you were...

SEC. ESPER: Are you talking about INF-range missiles? 

Q: Post-INF, either defenses or offense. 

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, so...

Q: (inaudible) 

SEC. ESPER: ... at the July meeting -- you're taking me back seven months now, and I don't have a good memory for these types of things. But I do know that we talked about what are our offensive responses and what are our defensive responses -- got you on a big yawn, huh? 

(LAUGHTER)

Clearly, we're moving forward in developing intermediate-range missiles and once we have those that are prepared for deployment, as I've said in the past, I would consult with my commanders. Do they need these missiles in our theater? If they do, then we would begin a series of consultations with our allies and partners about where do we deploy those missiles. That's on the offensive side. 

And clearly, for there, I'm more concerned about Asia, Indo-Pacific, where China has easily over a thousand of these missiles. 

Then there's the defensive side, and we -- we are also working -- it's built into our budget -- on how do you defend against these types of missiles? And that certainly will be part of the dialogue because you know, many of our NATO partners are concerned the Russians have these systems deployed, have had them deployed in violation of the treaty. And so how do we defend against them. 

(CROSSTALK)

Q: (inaudible)

SEC. ESPER: Yeah, yeah, right, right. Surface, right? OK?

STAFF: Guys, we've got to wrap up. 

SEC. ESPER: OK? 

Q: One clarification. Do you anticipate any deliverables out of this meeting? I'm speaking specifically whether NATO would meet its capacity, sort of the numbers it needs to get (inaudible)...

(CROSSTALK)

Q: ... I'm sorry, (inaudible).

SEC. ESPER: I don't have a good feel for that right now, so I'll be working at the military level in terms of these details. But I think we're going to -- you know, that will be a big part of the discussion. 

Q: (inaudible) specifically, (inaudible) to the...

SEC. ESPER: The numbers, I think -- talk about what the numbers are and the timing, right? Obviously, the sooner the better for us. So I think that's going to be part of the discussion. But there's nothing that I know we're going to sign and they could come out tomorrow on. If we do, that would be good, but nothing that I'm aware of right now. 

OK?

STAFF: All right, thank you. We do have to wrap up...

(CROSSTALK)